Reuters on Friday, February 21, 2003
BAGRAM, Afghanistan – The U.S. military said on Friday it had expanded operations in southern Afghanistan in the past week in an area where fugitive leaders of the ousted Taliban regime could be hiding.
U.S. military spokesman Colonel Roger King said troops primarily from the U.S. 82nd Airborne division launched Operation Viper several days ago in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold until the fundamentalist movement was thrown out of power by a U.S.-led coalition in late 2001.
King told a news briefing at Bagram, the U.S. headquarters north of Kabul, that seven suspected Taliban members had been detained in connection with the operations in the last 24 hours, but no shots had been fired.
He was not specific when asked if the operations were aimed at capturing fugitive Taliban leaders, who include the group’s chief Mullah Mohammad Omar.
“I would say that we have indications that it might be worth our while to look in Helmand Valley,” he said. “And one of the things we always look for are former Taliban leadership, so you can do your own extrapolation.”
King said 20 to 25 people had now been detained in the operations so far but said he could not give numbers killed.
Local officials and villagers in Helmand said last week that 17 civilians had been killed in coalition bombing raids in the mountainous region. The U.S. military says the only non-combatant casualty was an eight-year-old boy who was wounded.
It is not always possible to confirm casualty claims in remote areas, although Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed concerns for the safety of civilians after the Helmand raids.
About 8,000 U.S. troops and several thousand allied foreign soldiers are in Afghanistan pursuing remnants of the Taliban and the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden, which is blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
More than a year after ousting the Taliban and with the United States poised to launch a new war in Iraq, the whereabouts of bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain unknown.
However separate messages purporting to have come from the two men recently have urged Muslims to fight a holy war against the United States and its allies.